baking cake baking cake Sometimes lumpy, homemade cakes are better than perfect ones. (Photo: eldar nurkovic / Shutterstock)

Why you love that cake you baked more than the perfect one you bought

Research shows that value may have more to do with psychology than with products themselves.

Remember that cake you made a few years ago? The one that turned out all lumpy, yet still managed to taste delicious?

Odds are, that cake warmed your heart more than the perfect piece of cake you bought at a bakery last week. Because your cake may have had icing sliding over the place, and it may have turned out a tiny bit too salty, but it was yours.

People grow attached to things they make themselves. Like homemade cakes, or children. Superstar Israeli-American behavioral economist Dan Ariely, who has made a career out of studying human irrationality, has researched this phenomenon for years. He writes about it in his new book "Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations."

making chairNext time you're banging your head on the chair you're trying to make, know that you'll enjoy sitting on it more than any other chair in your house. (Photo: mavo/Shutterstock)

Ariely noticed that he felt more closely connected to IKEA furniture he painstakingly put together himself than furniture he bought. He remembered spending hours making a chest of drawers.

"I stood back looking at the chest and smiled with pride at having completed the job," Ariely wrote in "Payoff." "Over the years, I’ve noticed that I look at that chest of drawers more often, and more fondly, than any other piece of furniture in my house."

To study this connection further, he ran an experiment where he had participants make origami, then offered to sell them either the (mostly pretty lumpy) origami they made, or some perfect origami someone else made. He found that people were willing to pay five times more for origami they made themselves.

"Just as my working hard on the IKEA chest of drawers increased my affection for the damned thing, our origami experiments showed that the more effort people expend, the more they seem to care about their creations," Ariely explained.

The Israeli-born Ariely is known worldwide for his TED Talks and bestselling books.The Israeli-born Ariely is known worldwide for his TED Talks and bestselling books. (Photo: Courtesy Dan Ariely)

While scientists are just starting to quantify this behavior, companies have known about it for years. A company that made cake mixes in the 1940s took all the guesswork out of baking; customers just had to add water to mixes before throwing the batter in the oven.

But the company realized that people felt like they weren’t really baking, and that was lowering sales. So the company took out the powdered eggs and milk and made people add those final ingredients themselves, so they really felt like they were baking. It worked. As it turned out, people preferred to work harder to get the same product.

"When someone told them, 'What a delicious cake you made!' they could smile and respond: 'It’s an ancient family recipe'," Ariely wrote. "They didn’t just accept the compliment; they believed they deserved it."

chocolate cake on plateBaking a cake yourself also lets you make it exactly how you like it. (Photo: Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

Why does all this matter? Well, it means we psychologically value things not according to their market value, but to our personal connection with them.

"The Duff cake mix story offers a simple and clear example of the power of effort and ownership and how it relates to motivation," Ariely explained. "It shows that when we work harder and spend a bit more time and effort, we feel a greater sense of ownership and thus enjoy more the fruits of our efforts."

On a personal level, that means cooking for yourself, rather than ordering takeout, is not only cheaper and healthier ... it also makes you enjoy food more. It's something to remember next time you're deciding between cooking a simple meal and ordering food from a delivery service.

This finding could also have serious implications on a global level. Currently, the way we calculate wealth is all about the physical. When countries calculate the value of their products based only on market prices, they ignore emotional value. But this gives us the wrong impression about how items bring us happiness, which may partially explain why the richest country may not be the happiest country.

Money simply isn't the only key to happiness, and economists now have the experimental evidence to prove it. Knowing this, countries might create policies that focus more on happiness than our currently limited (and apparently incorrect) idea of wealth.

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